Wednesday, January 18, 2017

In search of north Wales' mountain spirit.

Wee Timerous Beastie: The rugged little peak of Rhobell y big

After being pretty down on Yr Wyddfa in my last blog where I lamented its despoliation and the insensitive way it has been managed by the powers that be. I thought I’d change tack from gloom merchant and purveyor of despair and offer a positive take on the mountains of north Wales.In this I thought I’d offer my favourite mountains which as you might guess, tend to be those peaks far from the madding crowd. Having a Wainwright-esque desire to keep the gore-tex hoards out of sight and mind, increasingly I’ve gravitated towards the lesser known peaks where you can often find yourself following a pathless trail across the hillsides, where only the odd bleating sheep or cronking crow break the silence. no particular order.

Ruin under Dduallt
Rhobell Fawr/ Rhobell y big/ Dduallt.
Three separate peaks of course but geographically and you might say romantically, part of a rugged triumvirate of remote south Snowdonia mountains. Boldly standing in isolation and separation from the neighbouring Arans and Arenigs to which they all look out to. All three can be bagged together as part of a fairly demanding day’s walking. Given that Rhobell y Big and Dduallt in particular are not over endowed with defined paths and instead demand some testing heather, bog and felled forest stumbling. By contrast, Rhobell Fawr is one of the easiest peaks to attain if you approach via Rhydymain. By driving up into the forest you can park opposite the little gritstone like edge of Fridd Craig Fach which is listed in the CC Merionydd guidebook. I discovered it in the 90‘s and put up a VS route on the far edge of the crag with Harold Drasdo. It has since been worked on by mid Wales climbing maestro Terry Taylor who has added several hard routes to the few more modest things of my own on there.

Getting back to ascending the mountain. From the forest lay by, its an easy 30/40 minutes walk to the 2400‘ summit. Climbers have the option of bouldering their way to the top, as the flank is peppered with outcrops and boulders. Just don a pair of old comfortable rock boots or approach shoes and wander from rock to rock. Choosing a line as hard or easy as your skills allow. Rhobell Fawr was a favourite mountain of 1930‘s Guardian columnist and walking guide author, Patrick Monkhouse who wrote the classics ‘On foot in north Wales’ and ‘On foot in the Peak’. Just a couple of miles north west of Rhobell Fawr is the diminutive little peak of Rhobell y Big. Despite being only 1600‘. Rhobell y Big is an attractive little mountain with a jagged cock’s comb peak.

Its little summit walls and slabs-like its bigger neighbour-offers the climber some sport. To the east, by the same distance,lies Dduallt. A veritable little Armadillo of a mountain. Just 2100 high but studded with outcrops and largely pathless. The only blemish is a pointless stock fence across its spine. Farmers....ever heard the word ‘Hefting’. Or do only Lake District sheep have this instinct? At the base of its eastern face lies the source of the mighty River Dee which emerges amongst the rocks of what appears as a man made structure, as a seeping puddle.

Yr Arddu

Another sub 2000‘ gem, the little  Moelwynion outlier, Yr Arddu, packs a punch beyond its size. Another peak studded with outcrops, many of which are recognized climbing venues included in the current Tremadog guidebook, Yr Arddu although lacking in soaring grandeur or even an obvious peak-its long heathery whale back offers a couple of high points, neither of which stand out-the whole massif is nevertheless a complex jigsaw of rock, defiles, tarns and rough ground. One lake in particular offers itself a fabulous wild camping spot. Despite its scale, the outlook in every direction is stunning. Particularly looking south west to the sea.

A slightly surreal little mountain-Manod Mawr.

Graig Goch and Manod Mawr.
Graig Goch is not so much a mountain more a winding escarpment which stands out on the edge of the Migneint. The start of the ridge is easily gained by parking just off the B4407 and bog trotting to the start. Despite this, its rare to ever see anyone up here and a clearly defined path follows a serpentine line just above the cliffs to eventually reach another forgotten climbing crag, Carreg y Fran which was briefly popular in the 70‘s and had a few bold routes put up in the early part of this century before retreating back into obscurity. Beyond the rock of the crow lies 2200' Manod Mawr. Another mainly pathless peak easily approached via the quarry road where you can park opposite Carreg y Fran-thereby gaining a lot of ascent- and wander across the cropped flanks between boulders and streams to find yourself looking down on the delights of downtown Blaenau Ffestiniog! Its surreal to be sure, this speckled lump of a mountain with a working quarry blasting out slate on its shoulder, the tumbling grey terraces of Blaenau to the north and to the east, the empty rippling moorland of the Migneint. Its unique vibe further reinforced by the knowledge that under your feet during WW2, the crown jewels and contents of our national galleries and museums were stored for safe keeping in the bowels of the mountain until the war had ended.

Look west to Arenig Fach

Arenig Fach
Much as I love neighbouring Arenig Fawr where I have walked, climbed upon and written about. Detailing the mountain’s unique art and climbing history, little Arenig Fach by comparison is something of a Cinderella...or should it be ugly sister? Incidentally, I’ve never understood why Arenig Fach ever became Arenig Fach (Little Arenig) when that title really should go to Moel Llyfnant which is joined to Arenig Fawr. Arenig Fach by contrast is totally separate and isolated from great Arenig??? Anyway, that being bye the bye, Arenig Fach is nevertheless another mountain within the rough bounds of the Migneint. Just over 2000‘ high, the approach from any direction involves some serious heather bashing and bog trotting as the hoards have yet to beat out a clearly defined path. I always approach after parking next to a little copse just off the A 4391 and following my nose through some pretty unforgiving terrain until I crest a saddle and look down upon remote Llyn Arenig Fach. A veritable wild swimmers delight in summer. This deep lake is fringed under cliffs by rocks which make perfect diving platforms. As an hors d'oeuvre before the main course or as a post peak dessert on your way back, its certainly one of the best wild swimming lakes in north Wales. The mountain’s rather gloomy north eastern face is nevertheless dramatic. A sweep of broken cliffs which have been climbed on but which as yet, have not seen those climbs recorded. The summit itself is rather pleasant with the heathery approach surrendering to a flat rocky pavement and summit cairn which offers wonderful views all around.

Llyn Arenig Fach. One of the best wild swimming lakes in Wales...but not on this particular day!

And there you have it. Not exactly the wilderness experience but a wee bit off kilter and relatively unspoiled.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Snowdon, Chinese lanterns and environmental Daydream Believers.

Local newspapers and social networkers were running a story this week which picked up on comments and photographs from a Snowdon walker-Andrew Ennever- who was concerned with the problem of litter around the summit of the mountain. Particularly around the summit cafe. Photographs showed a doorway entrance strewn with discarded wrappers, plastic bottles and bags etc. Q much hand wringing on social media and tweets from August bodies like the BMC and the Snowdonia Society. The newspapers were particularly outraged ‘Litter louts ruining Snowdon Summit’ ran the Daily Post while Wales Online which is from the same media stable as the Post declared ‘Tourists are accused of leaving one of Wales' most beautiful sites in a shocking state’.

Ignoring the fact the doorway looks like the back door of B&M Bargains in Bootle in the photograph, this is the summit of Yr Wyddfa we’re talking about. A summit which hosts a railway line and a summit cafe which has been described as resembling a Lidl supermarket in the past but which I feel more truly resembles a morgue! A morgue where the mountain spirit goes to die! In summer especially, the crowds gathered around the cafe and summit would not disgrace a League One football match. ‘’One of Wales most beautiful sites’..That’ll be right!

In short, as is so often the case when it comes to environmental issues,many people who should know better become fixated on minor details without seeing the bigger picture. Its what I call ‘The Chinese Lantern Syndrome’ . Every so often the news outlets and social media run stories about the environmental and animal welfare issues surrounding Chinese lanterns. I’ve even seen petitions crop up on sites like Facebook calling for Chinese lanterns to be banned. Farmers claim that cattle can eat them and some conservationists claim that birds and seals can become tangled up in the wire. I’ve seen Chinese lanterns floating across the sky once in my life. I have however, waded ankle deep in plastic and assorted aquatic detritus along the western Angelsey coast.

I know that the sea bed and shores hereabouts are littered with old wrecks, sunken fishing nets and lobster pots. Drums leaking oil and hydraulic fluid, in fact, all manner of man made pollution. I also know that onshore many pasture fields are littered with barbed wire and bits of rusty stock fencing, corrugated sheets and old bedsteads rammed in the boundaries. Plastic feed bags and jagged plastic buckets. But lets ignore the real threat to the environment which stems from the way the land and sea is exploited for profit and instead, wring our hands over Chinese lanterns and litter tossed around a mountain slum.

One of my much quoted political and environmental heroes, the US Eco/Anarchist Edward Abbey wrote.. 

I tossed my empty out the window and popped the top from another can of Schlitz. Littering the public highway? Of course I litter the public highway. Every chance I get. After all, it’s not the beer cans that are ugly; it’s the highway that is ugly.

I’m not sure if Abbey really did this or was he mischievously winding up one of his favourite targets, those he called ‘kneejerk liberals'. Its not that Abbey as an anarchist was a friend of the Right, but as with above examples, I think that his contempt was for those who obsess about relatively minor issues like litter, but who close their eyes to the really big environmental and political issues which are really causing the degradation of natural habitats and wildlife.

Of course, as a park ranger and someone who worked on a remote fire lookout tower as a fire spotter, Abbey had witnessed first hand the powers that be such as the National Park Authorities, driving roads into previously pristine natural environments to service the burgeoning car tourist industry. Where once bloomed deserts and virgin forests came tarmac highways, camp sites, tourist centres and gas stations. Little wonder that he considered the humble Schlitz can an irrelevance in great scheme of environmental concerns.

Industrial tourism is a threat to the national parks. But the chief victims of the system are the motorized tourists. They are being robbed and robbing themselves. So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of the urban...EA-Desert Solitaire

Of course,the impact of motorized transport clogging up our narrow roads, lanes and car parks is a far bigger problem here in the overcrowded UK than it is in the less densely populated US.

Careful with that ecological time bomb Eugene!

Given that we live in a tiny overpopulated country then it is inevitable that our wilder places will become increasingly despoiled and polluted.That natural habitats will shrink as new roads and housing takes priority over rural conservation, and that native species of fish, mammals and birds will decline and in some cases become extinct as their habitats are wiped out by bad farming practice and the tumorous growth of urban sprawl.

As a society we show little respect for our environment be it urban or rural. We accept pollution as a natural consequence of the material consumer world we inhabit and turn a blind eye to our own highly destructive lifestyles.Our addiction to air travel....because how else can we go climbing in the Atlas Mountains or skiing in Whistler! We upgrade our iPhones regularly and consume gadgets like there is no tomorrow. We drive big SUV's and Camper vans-yes me too- and spend a fortune on food; a third of which goes into land fill. We jam up the motorways each weekend and sit in gridlocked cities in the working week.But what is all that compared to the cataclysmic ecological impact of Chinese lanterns and crisp bags on Snowdon!

Final word to Edward Abbey who could never be accused of not seeing the wood from the trees....

When the cities are gone and all the ruckus has died away. When sunflowers push up through the concrete and asphalt of the forgotten interstate freeways. When the Kremlin & the Pentagon are turned into nursing homes for generals, presidents, & other such shit heads. When the glass-aluminum sky scraper tombs of Phoenix, AZ barely show above the sand dunes. Why then, by God, maybe free men and wild women on horses can roam the sagebrush canyonlands in freedom...and dance all night to the music of fiddles! banjos! steel guitars! by the light of a reborn moon!